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October (2007)

by Richard B. Wright

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1759153,862 (3.54)17
Published to rave reviews, with weeks on the bestseller lists and a place as a Globe and Mail Book of the Year, October is an extraordinary meditation on mortality and memory, from Governor General's Award-winning author Richard B. Wright Visiting his gravely ill daughter, James Hillyer encounters by chance Gabriel Fontaine, whom he met as a boy while on holiday in Gaspé. At the time, the boys had competed for the love of a French-Canadian girl from the village. Now, over six decades later and faced with the terrible possibility of outliving his own daughter, James is asked by Gabriel to accompany him on a final, unthinkable journey. With superb storytelling, spare writing and characters who feel as real and familiar as old friends, Richard B. Wright weaves a haunting classic of a man searching for answers in the autumn of his life.… (more)
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» See also 17 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
It's not a perfect book for me, but definitely in the top category. I was hooked from the first page. Undoubtedly a sad story, featuring the dying and death of two people who are important in the life of the narrator - one obviously so, his daughter, one less obviously, a childhood friend (Gabriel) he hadn't seen for decades. I think many readers won't feel comfortable with the narrator's approach to these deaths and so will be inclined to give the book a low ranking. On the other hand, I felt his rather indifferent approach to the demise of his childhood friend and its explanation in terms of their original relationship made great reading. The narrator's relationship with his daughter was dealt with somewhat more superficially despite being obviously more significant. I think this was present in the story, not to be the major part of the narrative, but to be a kind of standard for comparison - or contrast. Others have quoted from towards the end of the book when the daughter is dying, and this section also impacted me significantly. The narrator has been to Zurich with his childhood friend to accompany him as he goes through assisted suicide. The narrator suggests this possibility to his daughter:

" If those people were down the street, I'd go in a minute. But Europe? The plane ride? All that hassle?" She allowed herself a small mirthless laugh. "I guess I'm just too tired to die."
Six weeks later she was dead, and we buried her in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, not all that far from the graves of my parents and Aunt Margery and Uncle Chester, distant ghosts, awakened briefly by my chance encounter with Gabriel Fontaine in front of a London hotel one afternoon in October."
( )
  oldblack | Aug 20, 2017 |
Richard Wright deserves to be better known in Canada I think. His book Clara Callan was an amazing insight into a woman's mind and feelings. In this book Wright deals with the difficult subject of death but is never maudlin nor insensitive. I was caught up in the story from the first even though it strikes close to home right now and I wondered if I would be able to get through it. I'm glad I did but I have a feeling it will haunt me for quite a while. ( )
  gypsysmom | Aug 7, 2017 |
There is no fault to be found in Richard B. Wright's OCTOBER, but the subject is sad. A melancholic study of death and dying paired with memories of one special wartime summer for a fourteen year-old boy, James Hillyer. Forced unwillingly into a friendship with another boy, sixteen year-old polio victim, Gabriel Fontaine, the two boys vie for the attention and affection of Odette, a hotel chambermaid at a summer resort in Canada. From a vantage point of sixty years later, James, a retired professor of Victorian literature, reflects back on that summer. It all comes back to him when he meets Gabriel again in London, where James is visiting his daughter, Susan, just diagnosed with terminal cancer. He reluctantly agrees to accompany Gabriel, also fatally ill, on a final trip to Zurich. I know this all sounds rather grim, but Wright has woven all of these elements into one of the most poignant and heart-wrenching novels I have read in a long time. The writing here is simply beautiful. Very highly recommended.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER ( )
  TimBazzett | Mar 16, 2016 |
Picture this if you will: Your name is James Hillyer. You are seventy four years old. A retired University literature professor focused on the Victorians. Tennyson, Lord Alfred, is one that frequently comes to mind. You are at home in Toronto when you receive one of the calls all parents hope they will never receive: your daughter Susan has called to tell you that she has been diagnosed with cancer. Immediately, you are reminded of your own wife's losing battle with cancer over twenty years ago and face the horrifying thought that you might outlive your child. But the surprises don't end there. Who knew that a trip across the Atlantic to see your daughter would bring you in contact with someone from your past, someone you haven't seen or even thought of for sixty years. Someone who asks you to do something that is difficult to ask of anyone you only know because of one summer in Quebec back in 1944....

Wright has a great way of writing in a conversational style, reminding me in ways of Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, a book I read at the start of the year. I felt at ease with James, a thoughtful, pragmatic character with a good dose of common sense. An observer of humanity. A rather reluctant participant in the drama of the life around him. A soul searching for wisdom and peace. This is James at seventy four. The story shifts back and forth between those ten days in October and James' memories of that summer in 1944 when James and polio-stricken Gabriel Fontaine are reluctant friends, letting us see James at fifteen and allowing the reader to make comparisons between the old James and the young James.

Wright has chosen an interesting approach, which I think works well here. Sadly, parts of the story are reminiscent ramblings that appear to miss their mark than a preferred tight, plot driven approach. The reader is left with some unanswered questions, which bugs me a little but maybe that is the point. I don't know. Wright is known for writing about ordinary lives that collide with extraordinary events. This was another one of those kinds of stories. As much as I was drawn in as a reader during the first half of the story, the second half was a bit of a slog and, for me, lacked some of the strength of writing and storytelling. The ending was just that: an ending.

One quote did catch my eye as I was reading this one:

There was no escaping such grim thoughts. Cancer was again a leading player in my own narrative, the "heavy", who after an absence of twenty years had appeared again ten days ago. I would dream about it, for isn't that the way our minds work during these ordeals, turning over and over the same assailing thoughts, maddening and exhausting us. Meanwhile the body must still look after itself; its daily needs cannot be forgotten for long.

A well written examination and subtly persuasive novel that has made me decide to move Wright's Clara Callan up my TBR pile. ( )
3 vote lkernagh | Oct 10, 2012 |
Richard B. Wright has been one of my favorite authors since I read Clara Callan. His prose has an understated quality that subtly gives his readers a deep understanding of the characters and the plot. In this novel, James Hillyer agonizes over the diagnosis of his daughter's terminal illness when he accidentally encounters an elderly man whom he knew when they were both children. In counterpoint chapters their history is revealed as James accompanies this long-ago friend on his final journey. ( )
  pdebolt | Mar 5, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
October is subtle without being skimpy or evasive. James, for instance, isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator, but there’s as much to learn from what he can’t quite bring himself to say as from what he does tell us.
 
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For Phyllis and for Christopher, Vicki, Sydney, Abigail, Andrew, Wendy, Gage, and Millie with love
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I went to England to see my daughter. This was in October 2004. Susan had phoned the previous week with her dire news. A Friday noon hour and I was preparing lunch in my apartment in Toronto. Tuna and tomato salad. Herbal tea. An apple. Like many older people nowadays, I am taking better care of myself than in previous decades, adhering to a regimen of the priviledged middle class: a sensible diet with fresh vegetables and fruit, a brisk daily walk, moderate intake of alcohol, though now and then I am apt to depart from the latter and get a little tight with too much wine at dinner. At such times I feel entitled to indulge myself; either that or at seventy-four I no longer give a damn. Perhaps these are one and the same.
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Published to rave reviews, with weeks on the bestseller lists and a place as a Globe and Mail Book of the Year, October is an extraordinary meditation on mortality and memory, from Governor General's Award-winning author Richard B. Wright Visiting his gravely ill daughter, James Hillyer encounters by chance Gabriel Fontaine, whom he met as a boy while on holiday in Gaspé. At the time, the boys had competed for the love of a French-Canadian girl from the village. Now, over six decades later and faced with the terrible possibility of outliving his own daughter, James is asked by Gabriel to accompany him on a final, unthinkable journey. With superb storytelling, spare writing and characters who feel as real and familiar as old friends, Richard B. Wright weaves a haunting classic of a man searching for answers in the autumn of his life.

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